Mana, Más o Menos
“So leap out of your comfortable life and seek. Take a risk and find yourself inspired. Dare to veer off the path that’s been paved before you and find your own Ometepe, your own place of mana, whether it’s in Montana or Mongolia. As you introduce yourself to the indescribable energy of a powerful experience, you offer yourself a chance to taste parallel possibilities within your own nature. This is self-awareness in its most dynamic form: coming to know a facet of your own potential by contacting its semblance in the most inspired of settings. In such a setting, in a state of contemplated attunement, it ceases to be clear where you end and the universe begins.”
Mana, Más o Menos – Encountering the Profound on la Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua by Julian Vadas
All Photographs by Julian Vadas
Artist Julian Vadas follows a lifestyle that pursues the experiential intelligence of consciousness beyond personal identity. Art, yoga, music, travel, and wilderness immersion are his favored approaches to explore and engage the possibilities of being human.
There are some locations that carry a penetrating power of enchantment. These are places with an indescribable capacity to command one’s experience to untold levels. These are places in the presence of which we seem as if we’re a greater and deeper version of our self. In Central America, Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe is such a place. La Isla de Ometepe is an island in Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America and the only lake in the world with freshwater sharks. The island itself is the product of the two volcanoes that dominate both its geography and its persona. The active Volcán Concepción is the taller of the two and the sublime symmetry of its exposed rocky cone is unmistakable. The gaping uneven crater of dormant Volcán Maderas supports a small, untouched lake nestled into dense brush a few hundred meters below its undulating rim. The top of Maderas is enveloped by lush mystic cloud forest. A cloud forest is a rare ecosystem, a high altitude tropical rainforest that has near constant immersion in mist and clouds.
I recently took the opportunity to join some friends in Nicaragua during their eleven-month journey through Mexico and Central America. After joining up with two other friends arriving from the States, we headed to Ometepe. It would be easy to while away months on Ometepe but we only had a few days to spend there. Nevertheless, I would dare speak collectively and say that it was a rare and special experience that will stick out in each of our lives. It is amazing how sometimes an experience of a few days or a few hours will forever claim a large stake in our recollection. Even amid a generous spread of illuminating and far-reaching life experiences, it remains to astound the effect that a single instance can inflict.
While reading about Easter Island and the Rapanui the other day, I came across the term mana. It is a Polynesian concept that describes an impersonal energy that may enshroud and permeate a person, place or thing. It is a compelling, vitalizing energy that lends an undeniable magnetism or prominence to its holder. This concept is primary to the Polynesian worldview and is slightly awkward to reconcile with the Western worldview prescribing a reasoned and logical approach to reality. I don’t seek to apply mana as a specific concept in this case. Rather, I simply find that the idea of it resonates beautifully with experiences I’ve had at Ometepe as well as other powerful places around the world.
Ometepe has been home to humans for roughly three thousand years. Her first inhabitants were the Nahua people of Mexico, who are cousins of the more renowned Aztec and Toltec. A nahua tribe traveled south into Central America as called for in shamanic prophecy. It was prophesied that the people would travel in search of the promised land, an island of two volcanoes in a lake. When the people caught sight of Ometepe, there was no doubt that this was the land of prophecy. They settled the island and never left, even though the modern population has a mixed ancestry with the Nahua along with other native peoples, French, English, and Dutch pirates, and Spanish Conquistadors who later settled the island as well.
Ometepe today is populated by about 40,000 people living in villages scattered along the islands shores. They grow crops in the rich volcanic soil, raise livestock, and fish the lake. The people still retain a rich cultural tradition and oral history passed down from the earliest inhabitants of the islands. Our new friend Osbaldo explained to us the story of the Nahua prophecy as told to him by his grandparents when he was a child. Nahuatl petroglyphs still dot the island and the people are proud of their heritage.
On the ferry ride from San Jorge to Ometepe, the unreal power of the island was instantly obvious. Our short time on Ometepe was enriched and propelled by a very real energy that was absorbed from the surroundings and the company. Our crew swelled to eight as we somewhat unexpectedly teamed up with three other American guys. They were making their way by bicycle from Mexico to Panama. Alex and Kayla (my friends who brought me to Nicaragua in the first place) had met them first in Belize and again on an Island off the coast of Honduras before now. It’s an incomparable feeling to be truly inspired. In such a state of inspiration you gain an endurance for new experience that is so intense that it can seem almost alien. Under the influence of Ometepe and a group of amazing people, we experienced as much of the island in three days as our bodies and minds could withstand.
We spent the better part of the first full day on the island in sea kayaks. We battled abnormally high waves for Lake Nicaragua and a brutal late-morning sun to reach the monkey islands. The monkey islands are tiny (the smaller about the size a house) inhabited only by monkeys, one by spider monkeys and the other by white-faced capuchins. After lunch we paddled back out on calmer waters heading the other direction along the shore towards Concepción. The massive volcano had emerged from the clouds that had concealed it all day to affirm its prominence in the flattering light of the late afternoon. A gentle stream of smoke billowed calmly from its imposing summit, a subtle reminder of the immense dynamic power of the earth to coerce and forge the landscape. It is in a moment as this that you realize what it is to be truly alive and aware. The cool lake water splashing up from your paddle is a relief from the hot tropical sun that burns the side of your face as it makes way toward the horizon. The epic Volcán Concepción presides over the scenario and you glide towards it knowing that you are in a very special place. As we rounded the shoulder of the southern end of the island, the Maderas end, we made way towards the narrow isthmus between the two volcanoes. Here a shallow and muddy delta lined with aquatic trees transformed into a swampy inland river. As the sun began to set over the volcano behind us, dozens of species of tropical birds animated the environment around us and local fishermen wrestled a prehistoric fish from the net into their wooden canoe. There were swarms of insects so thick that they filled my throat as I inhaled. Seldom do you find yourself in a place so alive as this in every way.
As we made our way in dwindling light back out in to the open lake, the contrast between the tranquil serenity of the river and the raucousness of the now once again assertive swells of the big lake overtook me. It was a vivid embodiment of the archetypal relationship of opposites. Each opposite gains its richness, its beauty from its relationship with the other. Each expression of manifest reality defines and compliments its opposite through sheer relation. Fullness defines emptiness, dissolution compliments unity, the tumultuous lake gives efficacy to the stillness of the river.
That evening we sat on the porch of the cabaña we rented and ate mangos and bananas as the frogs, birds and cicadas commenced the familiar symphony of a tropical jungle. We were surprised as Ray and Dan (two of the three cyclists) showed up at our porch on their bikes. They had just arrived on Ometepe and were able to find us in response to a Facebook message that had been sent a few days earlier suggesting the area of the island that we were considering staying at. This consideration—and the ensuing Facebook message—were based solely on a flyer we picked up several days ago by happenstance at a hostel in León, a few hundred miles away in northwestern Nicaragua. It was all coalescing perfectly though, and the inexplicable magic of Ometepe had certainly taken foothold in us.
The next day we hiked to a two hundred foot tall waterfall high up on the side of the volcano. We hired a local boy that we found swimming at the dock to guide us the back way to the waterfall to avoid paying the entry fee at the “tourist” entrance to the trail. We were thoroughly cooked by the mid-day sun as we traversed mostly open pastures and farmland at the onset of the hike. As we moved into the jungle and the route became steeper, but the air remained as hot and humid, we rapidly perspired away most of the water we brought with us. We departed the narrow footpath and the ominous echoes of the howler monkeys who filled the canopy above us provided a suiting soundtrack as the bushwhack before us transformed from dense jungle undergrowth to a steep, dry riverbed. The immense heat and shrinking supply of drinking water fueled our desire to arrive at a lush aquatic paradise to provide swimming and sipping at the base of the waterfall. But the rainy season was just moving into gear and the dry riverbed, which later yielded dainty trickles as we approached the cascade, was not encouraging towards a fruitful outcome. Much to our appreciation the water was plummeting, fresh and cold, from green mossy cliffs as we reached our destination. The dry riverbed owed to the divergence of most of the water into a pipeline that supplied the village at the bottom with drinking water. This waterfall is absolutely one of the most beautiful and refreshing things I have ever seen. The opportunity to stand on a rock in the shallow pool at its base and be awash in the cascade, which was just gentle enough to manage, was pure tropical orgasm. We spent the entire afternoon at the site, absorbing a raw and potent vitality that defies description.
It is the otherworldly magic of Ometepe that provided the hue and contour of a deeply reflective descent from the crater of the dormant Volcán Maderas on our last day on the island. It was one of those experiences that is unfortunately all too rare these days—an experience that is so real, so full of life that it echoes in every corner of one’s manifold being. You are catapulted to inhabit dimensions of yourself that you seldom have the privilege to meet. This happens as the magnificence and grandeur of your surroundings, your journey, and your participation in them becomes both suddenly and subtly evident. This expansion of awareness effectively shatters the confining sense of habitual identity that excludes such a living experience. In wake of who you were, you are forced to become who you are, an omnipotent being in an omnipotent setting.
Awaking at sunrise on this day I surely didn’t possess any semblance of the clarity and confidence of the descent. Of the six of us who went up the volcano, I know that at least three of us would have jumped on the opportunity to stay in bed and spend the day on the beach rather than the volcano had one of the others posited the idea when the alarm rang. We were stiff, sore, and profusely sun-burnt from yesterday’s hike and the kayaking adventure of the day before and the thought of a steep eight-hour hike through hot and humid jungle was a bit daunting at the advent of wakefulness. It was the struggle that marked the division in our groggy minds between pushing outward towards our established itinerary and resigning to our pillows for the morning—comforting ourselves to remember the vibrance of the day before. It is a conflict that is waged continuously in the furnace of one’s personhood. It is a conflict between the true self, the pure interminable existence that transcends personal identity and the ephemeral self of habit that associates with context and circumstance.
The impermanent self fluctuates and tumbles with the oscillations of mind and matter. It is a mere fragment of one’s true breadth of being. This often over-powering version of the self wants to stay in bed; it does not want to climb the volcano. With its deeply ingrained allegiance with the mind it is quick to reason that the bed is a better choice: “yesterday was plenty a fulfilling day, think about having a beer on the beach this afternoon, aren’t you tired?” The eternal true self knows at this instant that the fatigue and grumpiness of the waking moment are but a fleeting illusion. The eternal self knows that the experience of the volcano will be epic. It knows that the ascent will resonate with the deepest threads of life that one can contain. The eternal self wins this conflict and we lace up our boots and head to breakfast despite the appeals of our current identity.
I could use any number of clichéd superlatives to account the ascent up Volcán Maderas and none would be inaccurate. We passed through a range of interesting ecosystems as the steep trail climbed into the misty cloud forest. Through a sequence of vistas and vantage points we gazed into soft white oblivion for infrequent glimpses of the steep jungled shoulders of the volcano. Dramatic, cloudy chasms dropped away from the edges of the path it became ever steeper. The upper reaches of the volcano supported a labyrinth of ancient fantastical forest. It was a forest full of life, from bellowing howler monkeys and fluorescent blue butterflies to the sprawling urban centers engineered by leaf-cutter ants. We climbed vines and scampered over exposed rock as we maneuvered through the now near-vertical trail as it wound under and around the intricate root structures of forest elders. Gnarled entanglements of mossy roots and branches formed precarious platforms that shifted with our movements as we rested between bouts of scrambling up steep patches of slick clay and winding roots.
As our party reached the summit, I was in the back. The exclamations and gasps of awe that resounded from the others as they stepped around the last impeding tree stoked an anticipation of uncommon depth. The panorama that greeted the eye as I joined them did not fail to merit the build-up. The near-perpetual clouds that had lingered atop the summit throughout our time on the island had dissipated just as we arrived to receive what lay before us.
The wide, dramatically contoured rim of the volcano’s crater flirted with remnant wisps of mist and cloud. A small lake glistened tauntingly from the bottom of the jungle-swathed crater. Past the far edge of the rim the massive lake stretched for miles. We could see the mountains of nearby Costa Rica as well as the Pacific Ocean beyond the narrow Rivas Isthmus that separated it from Lake Nicaragua. In the opposite direction you could make out the hourglass shape of the entire island, punctuated by the ever-astounding cone of Concepción. We could see the small swampy river that we kayaked at dusk and the small villages that dotted the shoreline. We spent an unknowable amount of time atop the rim, basking in a state of pure inspiration.
Throughout all living moments we grapple with unidentified forces. Without our knowledge metaphysical momentums propel us just as latent trans-material traffic encumbers us. Myriad mistakable currents weave a complex fabric of incessant interaction through segments of our being that we can scarcely recognize. Each and every moment of experience is a veritable orgy of cause and effect. Though it requires a wealth of patience and resilience, tangible steps can be taken towards realizing a deep and pervading self-awareness. This is an awareness of the self that extends far beyond the narrow boundaries of personal identity to include layers of consciousness as unfathomable as they are empowering.
During experiences of immense potency, in the company of illuminating people and in the presence of powerful places, we are forced to expand. We are forced to expand in order to digest the angles of our new experience that cannot find reconciliation within the confines of our enduring personal identity. This expansion is an almost unavoidable outcome of encountering the profound and very perceivable energy that encompasses certain people and places. Whether we call this mana or otherwise, its capacity to affect us is robust nonetheless. So leap out of your comfortable life and seek. Take a risk and find yourself inspired. Dare to veer off the path that’s been paved before you and find your own Ometepe, your own place of mana, whether it’s in Montana or Mongolia. As you introduce yourself to the indescribable energy of a powerful experience, you offer yourself a chance to taste parallel possibilities within your own nature. This is self-awareness in its most dynamic form: coming to know a facet of your own potential by contacting its semblance in the most inspired of settings. In such a setting, in a state of contemplated attunement, it ceases to be clear where you end and the universe begins.